Lamar’s is ultimately a positive tale, but good kid is one bleak affair. Over the standard edition’s 68 minutes, there’s a nervy energy — when songs aren’t wrapped up in gauzy synths they often fade out or cut off altogether, like jumping in and out of consciousness during a bender. So despite being overseen by Dr. Dre and having contributions from industry heavyweights like Drake and Pharrell, there’s little here to suggest the LP was made with commercialism in mind. This is both a good and a bad thing (and explains why that Lady Gaga collaboration didn’t make the cut).
It’s good because it gives K-Dot the freedom to indulge all his musical whims, harnessing his lyrical finesse over jazzy interludes, Beach House samples (on “Money Trees”) and funky West Coast thuds. “Sing About Me” finds K-Dot spitting over coffeehouse music like some early ’90s throwback — something that, these days, packs more punch than hearing yet another MC bark over 808s and skittering claps.
“Poetic Justice,” meanwhile, utilizes a Janet Jackson sample to create the album’s only feel-good song. (“Swimming Pools (Drank)” sounds like a celebratory song, but it’s actually the world’s most depressing ode to getting blasted.)
On “Backseat Freestyle,” Lamar channels Watch The Throne (with its Kanye-like hook “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours”), but while he’s playing against type, it sounds natural. Hit-Boy‘s beat slithers and pops and crackles, and Lamar bobs and weaves right along with it.
The sonic mix-and-match keeps the album unpredictable, but also leads to some bloat, with seemingly more attention paid to lengthy spoken interludes than to potent hooks. Several songs feel half-formed and meandering — for instance, “Real” is a ridiculous 7:24. And on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” K-Dot leans on that title line to the point of annoyance. These moments aren’t helped when Lamar breaks into a nasally, Urkel-esque voice for some of the sing-songy parts.
But those missteps are balanced out by the record’s utterly compelling narrative. The heart of the tale is laid out with the back-to-back combo of “good kid” and “m.A.A.d city.” In the former, Kendrick is resigned to his fate, lamenting that he’s “a prisoner of this way.” On “m.A.A.d city” that kid lashes out, but where other MCs would use the track’s hard beats as a chance to pound their chests, Lamar sounds pensive and desperate, all too aware of the futility of his situation.
When he does get to boasting, it’s from the perspective of a prostitute as he proclaims, “I’ll probably live longer than you and never fade away,” and then his voice fades away as he’s still rapping. Minutes later on “I’m Dying Of Thirst,” Lamar cries, “I’m tired of this shit…I’m tired of running,” sounding far more world-weary than any 25-year-old should. By this point in the album, he has so effectively reconstructed his world that the line hits the listener with a pang of sadness. It’s hard to remember the last time a rap album connected on that level.
The record concludes with the bouncing Caddy that is “Compton,” and while the Dre collaboration tosses away 11 tracks’ worth of nuance and introspection, it’s a perfect ending: the good kid deserves to have a bit of fun after all this. Because there’s no getting around it, good kid, m.A.A.d city is not a fun listen. It’s one of those essential albums that you’ll almost never be itching to hear. But that’s the point, Kendrick Lamar doesn’t want you to listen to it, he wants you to dive in it.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: Thematically, “Backseat Freestyle” isn’t representative of the album, but it showcases K-Dot’s lyrical gift and schizoid mid-song change-ups.
Pops Like: 2Pac at his most vulnerable, channeled through Drake’s chilly navel-gazing, with a hint of Illmatic.
Best Listened To: When Sunday night rolls around and you’re dreading going to class or work the next day and you need a reminder that things could be a lot worse.
Full Disclosure: I’m really disappointed Kendrick left out his Black Hippy cohorts Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q, who both had some of the most memorable verses on his prior album Section.80.
Idolator Rating: 4/5
— Carl Williott